• Happy birthday today to Mindy, born in the middle of a snowstorm.  I had to scrape 22 inches of snow off my car in the hospital parking lot...and found a parking ticket attached.  But she was well worth it.  She performs this week in the play, "Women of Lockerbie" at the Station Theater in Urbana (through February 2).  Click here for information. 
  • Jie and I returned from a relaxing week in Florida, arriving back in Mattoon in time for the snow to hit Friday night. Click here for Everglades photos from the trip.
  • Reading David Priess's book, How to Get Rid of a President:  History's Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable, or Unfit Chief Executives.  It is a romp through American history, not revealing any new information, but nevertheless an entertaining compilation of how America has dealt with problems presidents present.
  • A new 8 program series on Netflix has intrigued me:  "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo."  While I normally abhor reality shows, this one is actually edifying.  Ordinary people (not the kind who normally appear on reality shows) find their lives transformed as Marie teaches them to look at their belongings in new ways...and show them how to redeem the spaces in their homes.  I could only get Jie to watch a little bit of it, as she noted that the philosophy sounds too much like the way I talk!  But I recommend the show and would be interested in what others of you think.  Since the show premiered on January 1, contributions to Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc. have increased substantially, as people have been inspired to reclaim their things and their spaces.  Click here for a recent newspaper article on it.

January 13, 2018
Alligators in the Congregation
At 4 p.m. this past Monday I was swimming in the ocean off Miami Beach.  Yesterday I was shoveling snow in my driveway.  

So, if you don't mind, I think I'll muse about the warm part of my week right now.  South Florida is my preferred part of that state, particularly the Everglades National Park.  

Allow me to digress a bit on National Parks: Florida's Everglades constitute the third largest National Park in the contiguous 48 states.  Only California's Death Valley (#1) and Wyoming's Yellowstone (#2) are larger. When you throw Alaska's National Parks in, however, the Everglades comes in at #10.  The largest National Park in the United States is Wrangel-St. Elias, which is the size of Yellowstone + Yosemite + Switzerland!  

The most visited National Park is the Smokey Mountains, and the Everglades comes in at #25, which means it isn't terribly crowded (unlike the rest of Florida!)

And my favorite part of the Everglades is the Sh ark Trail. That trail (which has no sharks) is a 15-mile loop on the northern edge of the Everglades...a fresh water section of the park.  The best way to experience it is to bike it.  I'm not sure why it isn't called the "Alligator Trail," as I've nearly always seen over 100 alligators on it every time I've been there. This year Jie and I spotted 110.  The area features swamps, a fresh water canal, mangrove clusters, turtles, alligators, and birds.   Lots of birds: egrets, anhinga, herons, spoonbills, cormorants, ibises... But the alligators always steal the show when they are around.  
Some alligators are in the canal, most are sprawled out and sunning themselves along the bank, and some are even taking a nap in the middle of the road, where you want to ride your bike.  They almost always seem to be asleep.   When you see an alligator on the Shark Trail, you will certainly not be pondering how one of our national parks is bigger than Switzerland; all your attention will be on the beast before you.  

The alligator likely evolved 30-40 million years ago, one of the oldest animal species on earth. Sometimes it is referred to as the modern day dinosaur.  It is estimated that the alligator's bite (up to  3700 pounds of pressure per square inch is the same as the bite of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.)  In comparison, the bite of a lion or tiger or hyena is about 1000 psi.  An adult human uses about 150 psi when chewing a tough steak.  The moral of the story is this:  better to get bit by your uncle Bob than an alligator.

Some friends and I once saw an a lligator trying to eat a 14 inch turtle.  It was going really slow...the turtle being so big and its shell being so tough. It looked like when you get a giant jawbreaker stuck in your mouth...and you can't open your jaws any wider...but you also can't close them.  It looked painful for both the turtle and the alligator.  Not sure whatever happened in that contest...but we decided it might take a day or two to resolve...so we rode on.  (A few years later, when I returned to the same spot, the contestants were gone, mercifully.) 
There isn't much that can threaten an alligator ...except other alligators. Up to half of all baby alligators get eaten by their older neighbors.  We saw two pods of baby alligators on Monday: 20 hatchlings, about a foot long, in the first batch and 20 in the other one. (Of course, the babies were part of our 110 count!)  Each mother will lay between 20 and 50 eggs...and if the temperature stays above 93, they will all be males.  If the temperature stays below 86, they will all be females. 

Not that I would know what to look for, but I didn't deem it prudent on Monday to check out gender of those hatchlings.  The mothers were keeping a close eye on them.  

Humans are seldom in danger from alligators. The Shark Trail has the largest concentration of alligators in the Everglades.  And when I asked a park ranger several years ago, he said that they did not have any record of anyone ever being attacked by an alligator there. But he worried that all the teasing and the feeding of them would someday lead to a tragedy.  Park rangers (when they are allowed to go to work) advise that people get no closer than 15 feet away from an alligator.
I'm still learning the difference between alligators and crocodiles. The snout of an alligator is "U" shaped, while the crocodile snout is more a "V".  Alligators prefer fresh water, crocs can handle more brackish or salt water.  When an alligator's mouth is shut, you can't see the teeth.  But when a croc shuts its mouth, two of its lower teeth will still stick out.   
While a collection of baby alligators is called a "pod," a group of adult alligators is called...a congregation!  It almost makes me feel a little sleazy that I was seeing another "congregation" while I was on vacation away from my Mattoon folks. 

But actually...the alligators I saw never congregated much.  Except for the hatchlings, the most alligators I ever saw together was two. And while Christ is present whenever two or three humans are gathered in his name, two alligators don't quite constitute a congregation.  

So, all the folks at Mattoon should know that I'm loyal only to you, as far as congregations go.  

Plus...splendid as alligators are...the stories and complexities of my human congregation make them infinitely more interesting!  Glad to be biking with the alligators...glad also to be back with my human congregation.    --Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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